If you’re going to get through the world’s most extreme triathlon, you have to be prepared for 3.8km of swimming, 180km cycling and a marathon – but before that, you have to plunge four meters into the darkness.
Without that first step, there is nothing.
On the boat at the start of the Norseman extreme triathlon, the tension is palpable; it shifts around the deck, sometimes manifesting itself as nervous laughter or bravado, sometimes as silence. Some meditate, some pray, some stand in the spray of the fire-hose to get acclimatised. Every Norseman is different, and even at this moment, those who have done this several times before would admit that they don’t know what to expect.
With dawn still a long way off, cameraman Kalle and I move around the deck, searching for faces we know and stories we might tell, yarns that we will weave in and out of our broadcasts throughout the day. Allan Hovda is here, calm and collected – he won the Norseman last year but was disappointed not to break the course record. This year the Norseman and the Xtri World Championship will run side by side – he will take part in the latter and aims to finally become the fastest man to complete the course.
We’ll be keeping an eye on him and the front-runners throughout the day - known for his meticulous preparation, it is rumoured that he has even worked out the best temperature for the water that his team will use to cool him down during the run. Nothing will be left to chance.
The time to enter the water is approaching. A man appears in front of me.
“I’m Jeff Beaudette from Boston.”
I know who he is; we’re friends on Facebook pretty much since I started commentating on this race. The big Bostonian looks calm and focused. While Hovda aims to break the record, Jeff aims to complete the course. He asks me what I’m thinking.
I’m thinking about the stories and the storylines. I’m thinking about how Hovda and the elite men and women are one story, but that the field is made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands of tales. The Norseman itself is an epic saga. All of a sudden a long day of racing is looking far too short to fit them all in.
I tell Jeff what I’m thinking of talking about between here and the finish, a dozen or more hours and 220 kilometers away, but that the first show will start with that four-meter jump, off the back of the boat and into the water. Into the cold and the dark and the unknown. Without that, there is nothing.
“It’s all about the jump,” Jeff says, nodding. His race is about to start.
Together with almost 300 others, he makes that jump, in the gloom, into the chilly water of the fjord.
There is no turning back. There cannot be.
What follows throughout the day is impossible to retell from memory and thankfully we have hours of footage, both broadcast live and recorded, that are woven together in real time by a skilled team back in Stockholm.
For some, the water was warm and comfortable, others suffered cramp and had to hang on to canoes until they passed. Some relished the spectacular scenery on the bike ride, others suffered for hours through arduous climbs, each one harder than the last.
The temperatures were warm, at least until the foot of the mountain, and that presented its own challenges. Some ran out of steam early and had to battle for every inch, some paced themselves beautifully only to run smack into the wall.
Despite a strong field, Allan Hovda struck out in front and though the heat put paid to his course-record pace, the longer the race went on, the more in charge of it he looked. The mountain at Gaustatoppen shrunk before him and the whisper went down the field – “The race is his. It’s only a matter of time.” Every step brought him closer to the top, and to victory, but one man wasn’t listening.
Like everyone on the course, Hans Christian Tungesvik had almost been broken during the day, but having survived the taunting cruelty of Zombie Hill and found himself still in second place, he turned up the mountain with a little energy left in his tank. What lay before him was nigh-on impossible, but he vowed to empty himself of every last ounce of it in one gigantic effort to will it into existence.
With every step on the dusty, rocky trail the leads upwards, the sands of time were running out. Every sinew, every fibre, every ligament was stretched to breaking point. His legs filled with lactic acid, he powered on, ignoring the screams of his body and the voice that said “it’s too late.”
And then, with about two hundred meters to go, he saw him.
Hovda was moving purposefully across the rocks and stones, using the last of his almost super-human power to keep moving forward. But the mere sight of his back sent Hans Christian’s adrenaline surging, and he burst forward and into the lead.
The hunter was now the hunted, and the shock hit him like a slap in the face – the lead he had so recently grabbed form Hovda, who had lead after 219.8km of a 220km race, could be just as easily be snatched away form him.
That fear lit a new fire.
A hundred meters.
The punishing last few steps.
The finish line.
The blessed, blessed relief.
The primal scream of joy and victory and release.
Hovda may have had no more to give, but he was surely close enough to hear that roar - sportsman that he is, it didn’t bother him as the two embraced a minute or two later. He had given everything he had, and on this day, on this course and in this place, Hans Christian had slightly more to give. He was gracious in victory. Both were utterly spent.
The trickle of finishers became a stream, each with their own epic tale of struggle. Some overcame their fears and limitations, some succeeded despite them – some came up short, but at the end of every Norseman day, the sun sets on the other side and the mountain casts no shadow on those who challenge her.
We told their stories as best we could, privileged to witness their achievements and convinced once again that there is no such thing as “ordinary” people. Exhausted ourselves, we checked out. Our work was done.
Long into the night they came, finishing up at Gaustablikk, lapping the hotel to make up the required distance and an official finishing time. Wearily they walked up the steps to the dining room, filling their bellies before challenging stiff and aching limbs one last time to take them to their cabins, where they fall into a deep, deep sleep. When they awoke, they headed back to the breakfast room and ate themselves full again, their bodies crying out for calories to repair themselves.
Allan was there, still gracious, still glad for what he had achieved.
In the hotel lobby I met Jeff and asked him how his day was. He made it, it was tough, but the satisfaction was written all over his face – it’s only impossible until it’s done. I asked him how he did and he said he crossed the line 19 hours, 18 minutes and 16 seconds after the horn sounded in that fjord at 5 AM that morning, 220km away. Nothing and no-one can ever take that away from him.
It took him almost twice as long as the winner, but that does not matter - in that moment I wanted him to know the respect that I feel for athletes like him, the men and women who may never know a place on the podium and who do this simply because if they didn’t, they would not feel complete.
The Norseman describes itself as a race that is “not for you”, and there were never truer words spoken or written or imagined – out of billions of people on the planet, only a tiny fraction could ever manage what these athletes achieve. Not all of them will take that first step, and fewer still will ever make it to the race. I wanted him to feel the boundless respect I have for even considering taking on that challenge, those who stand on the edge of something that dwarfs them and somehow find the courage to take the plunge.
I think on some level he understood what I was getting at, and we shook hands as we went our separate ways towards whatever new challenges await us.
“It’s all about the jump,” he said.
It’s all about the jump.
2019 was the third year I have been involved with the Norseman Extreme Triathlon, and the first that I got to follow so closely on the boat, the course and at the finish line. Thanks to Dag Oliver and to everyone involved for allowing me to be part of this epic race.
Thanks most of all to Robin Danehav, Malin Andersson and their immensely skilful and talented production team at Spocks Family – they give the wonderful Helen Webster and I (pictured below doing our last slot) the canvass on which to paint these epic events, and without them there would be far, far fewer great stories in the world.